A cure for the common scold

The wheels of Justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.

One of the biggest movies of 1967 was Franco Zeffirelli’s rollicking cinematic rom-com treatment of William Shakespeare’s comedy Taming of the Shrew, written and first performed four centuries earlier in the late 1500’s. The 1967 movie of the same name starred Hollywood’s then hottest couple, the Brangelina of their day, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as the strong-willed couple Katherina and Petruchio, who are pitched together in a head-long battle of the sexes.

For those who need to brush up on their Shakespeare, the Shrew plot follows the efforts of embattled dad Baptista Minola to marry off his two daughters, Bianca and Katherina. Tradition dictates the younger, prettier daughter Bianca cannot be married before her older sister Katherina, but the strong-willed, obdurate Katherina, described as an ‘irksome, brawling scold’, has proved to be a particularly hard nut for any suitor to crack. The fireworks begin in earnest when the lusty young nobleman Petruchio takes on the challenge of courting the headstrong Katherina, eventually turning her from a shrew into a desirable and obedient bride.


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Now, before the righteously indignant protestations of misogyny drown out all further discussion on the subject, I hasten to point out that, in Shakespeare’s day, the term shrew was firmly-accepted and -enshrined, both in language and in law. It derived from the Middle English shrewe, meaning an ‘evil or scolding person,’ used since at least the 11th century, and was in common usage by the 16th century. In Elizabethan England it was against the law to be a ‘shrew’ or ‘common scold’ – a quarrelsome person who habitually breached the peace by loudly and publicly berating and arguing with their neighbours.

In medieval legal records, scolds and shrews are described by various Latin terms such as objurgator, garulator, rixator, and litigator, in both masculine and feminine form, connoting a man or woman given to objectionably argumentative and inflammatory behavior, but the overwhelming majority of those classified as common scolds and shrews were women who were perceived to nag their hen-pecked husbands mercilessly, or simply spoke their mind too loudly or too often. Sometimes, although rarely, men were charged conjointly with their wives as common scolds. In 1434, when the Middlewich shrew Helen Bradwell scolded Hugh Welesson and his wife Isabel, calling her a “child murderer” and him a “skallet knave,” the outraged couple responded in kind, calling Helen nothing but a “lying bletherer,” whereupon all three of them were prosecuted and convicted of being common scolds.

The most common form of punishment imposed on scolds was called “ducking”, which involved strapping the convicted person to a chair, which was then lowered into water repeatedly.

In his Commentaries on the Laws of England, first published in 1765, the eminent English jurist Sir William Blackstone categorised ‘the common scold’ as ‘a public nuisance to her neighborhood’ who, if convicted, ‘shall be sentenced to be placed in a certain engine of correction called the trebucket, castigatory, or cucking stool, which in the Saxon language signifies the scolding stool; though now it is frequently corrupted into ducking stool, because the residue of the judgment is, that, when she is so placed therein, she shall be plunged in the water for her punishment.’

In the early 1700’s the French writer Francois Maximilien Misson described ducking as a ‘pleasant enough’ punishment, which involved the offender being plunged into water ‘as often as the sentence directs, in order to cool her immoderate heat’.

Over the centuries, the offence of being a common scold eventually fell into disuse, but ever so slowly, like the wheels of Justice itself. A plaque on the Fye Bridge in Norwich still marks the site of a “cucking” stool where “strumpets” and common scolds were regularly dunked till the late 1500’s. In 1681 the recalcitrant scold Mrs Finch, having been thrice convicted and ducked, on her fourth time around was spared the repeat ignominy by the King’s Bench, who instead ordered she pay a fine of three marks. A quarter-century later, in the case of The Queen v Fye, counsel for the accused had the temerity to question whether ducking was still lawful punishment, but was promptly assured by Lord Chief Justice John Holt it was, although his Honour allowed it was better carried out in the summer rather than winter, for obvious reasons.

The last recorded duckings were of the shrew Mrs Ganble at Plymouth in 1808, and the scandalous scold Jenny Pipes, at Leominster in 1809. Sarah Leake was sentenced to be ducked for scolding in 1817 but alas, the water in the pond was so low she had to be merely wheeled around town in the chair instead. As late as 1829, in Washington DC, where the Common Law of England applied, the American anti-clerical writer Anne Royall was found guilty of being a common scold, but the court ruled the punishment of ducking outmoded, and so settled for a ten dollar fine.

Incredibly, it was not until 1967, the year in which Hollywood’s number one item, Burton and Taylor, reprised the four-century old tale of the taming of the troublesome “scold” Katherina, that the slow-turning wheels of Justice finally ground the obscenity of scolding into permanent obsolescence. The Criminal Law Act of 1967 abolished, amongst others, the offences of challenging to fight, eavesdropping, and being a common scold.

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